Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“This case has been a disaster…”

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"This case has been a disaster..."

Note: This post is the twelfth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 13. You can read the previous installments here.

Many moviegoers probably maintain a mental list of scenes they’d like to see, as Mad Magazine did for so many years. Here’s one of mine. The maverick cop, doggedly pursuing a serial killer on his own time, is called onto the carpet by the police chief—or, even better, summoned before an administrative hearing. He calmly lays out the case against his primary suspect, ignoring the skeptical looks pointed in his direction. The chief glances at the stony faces to either side, turns back to the cop, and says:

You know what? That’s a very compelling case you’ve got there. You’ve convinced me. Tell us what you need. All the resources of the department are at your disposal.

Of course, that isn’t how it usually happens, but it would be great if it did. Not because it “subverts” a trope or convention, which isn’t always a valid reason in itself, but because it holds more dramatic potential. If it’s interesting to see a lone cop without any backup go up against the villain and fail, it would be all the more riveting to see the antagonist outsmart and outmaneuver the full weight of the police force. As I see it, if it’s a choice between reducing the hero or elevating the villain to keep the scales evenly matched, there’s no doubt as to which alternative would yield better stories.

That said, there’s a reason why even the best cop movies, from L.A. Confidential to The Departed, so often include some variation on the line: “Turn in your badge. You’re off the case.” In a way, it simply restores the protagonist to his proper place. Movies and television like to focus on cops because they’re the last members of our society who can plausibly confront violence directly: the rest of us are more inclined, without a strong reason to the contrary, to call the police. There’s a sense that the buck stops there, at least when it comes to the kinds of active heroes that we like to see. By throwing the officer off the force, we get the best of both worlds: he’s deprived of the system that supports him, while remaining the same driven guy as before—fully motivated and qualified, as most of us aren’t, to take justice into his own hands. His badge and gun get him to exactly the point in the story where he needs to be, after which they can be safely discarded. It doesn’t hurt that the scene also establishes our hero as a man who doesn’t play by the rules, which is rarely a bad thing, and sets up a conflict with a clueless authority figure. Like most good clichés, it survives because it does two or three useful things at once, and writers haven’t figured out anything better.

"She chose her next few words with care..."

As a result, even when we recognize the trope, we’re likely to respond to it as Homer Simpson does while shouting at the television set: “It means he gets results, you stupid chief!” (To which Lisa wearily responds: “Dad, sit down.”) But like any convention, it can grate if it presses our buttons too insistently, especially if it’s written by someone who should know better. One of my few complaints about the Fargo miniseries revolves around the character of Bill Oswalt, played by Bob Odenkirk, who exists largely to foil the resourceful Molly as she gets closer to solving the case. Bill isn’t a bad guy, and the show takes pains to explain the reasons for his skepticism: he went to high school with Lester, the prime suspect, and doesn’t want to live in a world in which such evil exists. But their scenes together quickly start to feel monotonous: they occur like clockwork, once every episode, and instead of building to something, they’re nothing but theme and variations. They retard the story, rather than advancing it, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that they exist solely to keep Molly from moving too quickly. I can understand the rationale here: Molly is too smart to be misled by Lester for long, and once she arrests him, the story is over. But I can’t help feeling that it could have been handled a tad more subtly.

Still, I probably shouldn’t talk, since I include much the same scene in Chapter 13 of Eternal Empire. Here, it’s an administrative hearing at the Serious Organised Crime Agency, in which Wolfe is called to account in much the same fashion as countless heroines before her. (In particular, the scene reads a lot like a similar one in the novel Hannibal, which isn’t entirely an accident.) In my defense, I can say that the sequence is designed to move the story along, rather than slowing it down: I had to convey some necessary exposition about the dead body Wolfe discovers in her previous scene, as well as to remind the reader of a few important events from the last novel, and delivering it in a setting with some inherent conflict is more interesting than a dry summation of the facts. Leaving Wolfe at a low point here also sets up the next big moment, when she has too much to drink and spills a crucial secret to the last person she should have told. And I don’t linger on it more than necessary. If there’s any conclusion to draw, it’s that a hoary scene like this—like most of the familiar tools in a writer’s bag of tricks—can better justify its existence if it’s there to serve a larger purpose, rather than just to rile up the reader. And if it riles up the reader just a little bit, well, I’ll take such moments where I can…

Written by nevalalee

March 19, 2015 at 9:21 am

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